As fires rage and anger intensifies, swingeing cuts amid climate chaos have put the government on dangerous ground, reports Kevin Ovenden
Wildfires are still raging out of control in Greece more than a week into the worst heatwave for 30 years.
A burst of rain has brought some relief in neighbouring Turkey, where forest fires have ravaged the south-west of the country, surrounding coastal holiday resorts.
But the tinderbox conditions remain. We are yet to see the usual peak danger period for forest fires, which is from around mid-August when dry conditions are accompanied by strong winds that have so far been absent.
Then there are the fires in southern Italy and in Siberia, where settlements have been evacuated. That these are consequences of rapid climate change was blindingly obvious even before this week's publication of the IPCC climate report warning that chaotic change is happening more rapidly than even pessimistic scenarios anticipated and is already irreversible.
Public awareness of the crisis and a sincere desire to tackle it are not the obstacle to taking action. Polling shows people are absorbing the news of apocalyptic fires in north-west US and western Canada, over a hundred dead from floods in Germany and Belgium, major flooding in China, last year's fires in California, a year before that in Australia....and that is just in the most developed world.
Denial of climate change and its effects is marginal. That did not stop Turkey's president Recep Erdogan from dismissing the impact of global heating and instead with no evidence at all claiming that fires were the work of Kurdish rights campaigners and their supporters on the left.
That points to the intense politicisation of this climate crisis in southern Europe. It is nowhere more apparent than in Greece. Here, the centre-right prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has intoned that this shows the “reality of climate change”, as if that were some profound observation. In doing so, he hoped to evade responsibility for the state's lack of preparedness for dealing with this “reality” that we all knew. Forest fires are not new to Greece.
Any chance of him achieving that disappeared at the weekend. The shocking, almost science-fiction images of people being evacuated by ferry from the island of Evia as a ring of fire closed in over the mountains were reported world-wide. So were pictures of a front of fire to the north of Athens advancing towards the capital.
The scale of the destruction on Evia is hard to fathom. With fires still raging at the weekend, 430,000 of the 550,000 acres in the second most northerly municipality had been burned. The fires continue to advance.
Less reported, but crescendoing now is a wave of rage at the base of Greek society at the government and state. Crucially, the fury at the right-wing government is most intense among the immediate victims of the fires.
There was a concerted effort by the government and the media last week to present this as a natural disaster, “unprecedented”, the government on top of things, with the main political issue being “climate change”. That is, of course, global and the implication was that responsibility lies on each of us for human-driven extreme weather events or on “the international community”.
What is most remarkable over the last five days is how that has broken down. Arguments and angry responses that the right in Greece have always pretended are the preserve of wild leftists are now being voiced by small farmers, the woman who ran a guest house, villagers from conservative areas. The head of the Attiki region of the Greek chamber of commerce died of a heart attack trying to save his small factory.
There was the man who had lost everything telling a radio station that the fire front was 40 kilometers but there were only 170 firefighters. He added: “When Mitsotakis goes to [the annual trade fair] in Thessaloniki next month, he will be guarded by 3,500 police.”
Another at the weekend interrupted a journalist talking to his studio to denounce the government, ending with, “And they like to go on about anarchists burning things down in Athens [a favourite theme of the right]. Well, good for the anarchists. I shall become an anarchist.” He looked like an average middle-aged villager.
For three days the words of a younger man burned out of his house and livelihood were turned into a trending hashtag telling Mitsotakis to “fuck yourself”.
Again and again the same phrases have come from fire victims – words used earlier by counterparts in Turkey - “We have been abandoned.” “Where is the state?” “We are alone [in facing this]”.
By Sunday the municipality at the very north of Evia, run by the centre-right, put on its social media accounts: “Ourselves alone.”
Popular voices have forced themselves into official politics and are splitting the ruling bloc. Mayors and the governor of the Evia region say they have been ignored by the central government.
At the same time it is now widely known that there was a budget request for just 17 million euros to help maintain the reserve, volunteer firefighting force – what in Britain are called retained firefighters, often in rural areas. That was cut by 90 percent. Some 5,000 reserves have been lost.
This is very dangerous political territory for the government. Two years ago, it made capital during the general election campaign out of the catastrophe in the summer of 2018 when a forest fire killed over 100 people at the Mati seaside resort to the north-east of Athens.
It was a national calamity with three days of mourning. It focused anger on the then Syriza government and it savagely revealed the impact of austerity on the infrastructure and firefighting capacity of the country. Even at that point there had been 40 percent cuts to the fire service. Those few firefighting planes the country had were often 30 years old and frequently grounded awaiting parts and repair.
Every cut to the fire service and the infrastructure was signed off by officials of the Troika of the IMF, European Central Bank and EU who drove through the relentless austerity.
So all of this was known. But the incoming New Democracy government a year later argued that the real problem was the “incompetence” of Syriza and the left. “We know how to run things. We have business sense.” That was a key election message accusing Syriza of having brought the country to disaster by opposing the austerity memorandums, only then to capitulate, which the right said should have happened all along.
Thus the political crisis facing this government is especially acute as it flows out of its cynical campaign against the last one.
It is abundantly clear that the issue is not competence. As for “business sense”, that backfires enormously as people discover that Mitsotakis is putting his sister in charge of the quango he says will oversee reforestation following the fires. Most people know that this will be a further corrupt and anti-environmental process. The provision of wind turbines is already in the hands of a plutocrat family close to the Mitsoitakises.
On the narrowest of measures, the government has not listened to professionals. They pointed out that you need to have firefighters familiar with the fire ground, not too few shipped around the country to plug gaps. This has resulted in firefighters sent to Evia not being told where the hydrants are and having to be guided there by villagers.
Hoping to avoid the death toll at Mati (for political reasons) has also driven the government policy of throwing everything into evacuation. It did initially appear reasonable. If we cannot stop the fires, then save lives and evacuate.
But people began to ask why there was no serious attempt to halt the inferno – why were there not the personnel and equipment. Then from last Friday on story after story went viral on social media that refuted the smearing campaign in much of the media that stubborn “peasants” were refusing to follow advice from a government of business experts.
We saw younger people evacuating the old, infirm and children while organising themselves to chop down trees and create firebreaks. People with only branches of leaves beating down ground fire.
“I am not abandoning the village where my grandmother was born,” said one man. Another, himself a grandfather, “Why do we have these sociopaths in power. They cannot do anything. Maybe we will have to do it all ourselves.” Then he broke down, tearful and exhausted.
As often with such calamities the government and its supporters in the media were keen to suggest that the entire nation was responding with the solidarity and collectivity of ordinary people who opened up homes and organised relief.
At the weekend news spread on social media that the shipping owners, who are the backbone of the Greek capitalist class, had been charging people on the evacuation ferries. They had to make it free. But news bulletins then emphasising that it was free have only antagonised people further.
It has raised the question of who really is “in it together” and who “we” are. A resident in northern Evia pointed out: “Mitstotakis said he was going to stop refugees [coming to the country]. He is turning us into environmental refugees.”
Fearful of exposing him to this raw anger and creating footage that even his media baron friends can no longer contain, the prime minister's office has put him on controlled visits and with only an official photographer and crew present. Edited clips and posed pictures are then released to the media to regurgitate.
This is the supposed liberal modernising prime minister of democratic Greece on the frontline against Asian tyranny.
All the political questions are intensified in the flames of these wildfires. An old argument of the left that neither in Turkey nor in Greece do we need more fighter planes and frigates has a popular echo as people question the nationalist scramble for power in the region.
In the middle of a heatwave, when people are desperate to get out of the cities for at least a little break, the government has announced a 1000 euro fine for people entering forests, for whatever reason. The implication is that it is people in general or an army of arsonists who are the problem. It is widely seen as punishing the people.
We shall see how this unfolds over summer. All are hoping desperately that the fires are controlled, which probably requires a period of rains. We all know that the problem is deeper than that.
A demonstration takes place in Athens this evening demanding funding for the fire service and a host of emergency measures.
There will doubtless be more. There had been strong rumours of a snap general election in September or October. That is less likely now – just as it was three years ago when Syriza was considering similar.
That is what it means to say that climate chaos is upon us. It means that these sudden and deadly events become knitted into what we usually think of as normal politics. Seemingly stable governments with electoral support can find themselves blown off course.
Developing the environmental movements and linking them further with the mass of people is obviously a great priority. So the protests at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November will be hugely important in trying to force the necessary global changes.
But the story of Greece shows something else. The funding and organisation of the fire service, the water supply, democratic nationalisation not cronyism, popular organisation not authoritarian diktat, solidarity, collectivity, community.... these are fronts of the “environmental” struggle.
And that struggle becomes concentrated at various political moments. Greece is in one now.
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Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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